ON THE COUCH WITH ... Witi IHIMAERA
WITI IHIMAERA is a Maori novelist and short-story writer. He is also a Professor of English and Distinguished Creative Fellow in Maori Literature at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His latest book is Ask the Posts of the House (Raupo Publishing, 2007), recently shortlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He has edited nine anthologies of contemporary Maori literature, including Get On the Waka (2007) and recently completed a screenplay adaptation of his novel, The Matriarch (1986). His novel, The Whale Rider (1987), one of his best-loved novels amongst adults and younger readers alike, was made into a movie and released in 2003. Filmed on the breathtaking east coast of New Zealand, the film has been widely acclaimed. Born in Gisborne in 1944, he now lives in Auckland.
Ihimaera spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from his home in Auckland, New Zealand.
How did you find out about the longlist?
Life is insane at the moment with teaching, grrrr, but I managed to open my e-mails between one class and another, and found that one of my students had sent me the news about being on the longlist even before my publishers informed me. Perhaps the student wants an A and this was her version of giving an apple to the teacher!
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
The first thing I did was to check with my publishers and then to laugh out loud—with excitement, I might add. Then I telephoned a couple of friends and we went to a bar for a drink. Even if I don’t get any further I am ahead as they paid. I had vodka.
What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Are you familiar with any of them? Have you read any of them?
Man, oh man, there are 39 of us. I have just met Anne Enright in Hong Kong at the Man Hong Kong Writers Festival and I have her book—it’s fascinating. I also know Roddy Doyle’s work, so Ireland is well represented with a couple of frontrunners. As a Dr Who fan (don’t tell anybody!), I’m really interested in Robert Shearman and I’ve ordered Niki Aguirre (any publishing company called Flipped Eye has gotta be looked at) and Padrika Tarrant who is one of eight writers from Britain whose books are published by Salt Publishing. Nam Le’s The Boat, from Australia, interests me, as does Jhumpa Lahiri with Unaccustomed Earth, from the U.S., as she’s a raging hot favourite. From our part of the world I have to say that it’s absolutely a pride-bursting pleasure to see Wena Poon from Singapore, Egoyan Zheng from Taiwan and Tubal R. Cain from Nigeria (yeah, yeah, not exactly our region but New Zealand Maori have a strong affinity with Black Africa), and I’ve ordered them all. Writers from Asia don’t often appear on literary lists, and I congratulate Wena Poon and Egoyan Zheng. And, of course, I have great colleagues from Aotearoa with me on the list, Tim Jones, Sue Orr and Elizabeth Smither, all paddling the waka.
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
Well, of course, I have read Frank O’Connor. His stories are very reflective of New Zealand Pakeha experiences and, at the same time, they are perceptive, powerful, fearless. I wasn’t aware of the Prize, however, until Haruki Murukami won it for Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman in 2006.
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
I believe that writing short stories requires the same commitment as writing a full-length novel. When I write a short story I put the same amount of thought, intensity and commitment into it as I do into a novel. So in Ask the Posts of the House you are getting seven “novels” as it were. One of the stories in my collection, “Ask the Posts of the House,” for instance, took five months to write. Others have been in my head for years, so the thinking process has actually taken as long as any novel I have written. On another level, I also think short stories are harder to write. They have to work so precisely at the micro level where all one’s faults and weaknesses can be exposed. With novels, I am able to obscure my faults with technical trickery and, I think, I can forgive myself a little easier for letting things pass that I wouldn’t pass in a short story.
Short stories appear to be getting more popular. Writers tend to publish their short-story collections after publishing their novels. Jhumpa Lahiri continues to publish great collections. Anne Enright published a short-story collection after her Man Booker Prize-winning The Gathering. What are your thoughts on this?
I began my career with a short-story collection, and then I published novels. Although novel-writing has subsequently been something that I have managed through hard work to crack, I think I am basically a short-story writer at heart. I think this is because I am an indigenous writer and the short-story form is more akin to our traditional literary forms—poetry is closer, but I can’t write poetry—whereas the novel is a very alien, European, form.
What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection?
Any of the collections by Samoan writer Albert Wendt or Maori writer Patricia Grace. We, like many other Maori and Pacific writers, are trying to write Pacific culture into existence. Writing for us is both a political as well as an aesthetic act.
Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people buy or read more of such collections?
I’ll answer this question as a Maori writer. When I began my career, three publishers refused to publish my work; one of them said it was because Maori people don’t read books. Today, although I am now an established writer in New Zealand, I am able to have my work published without difficulty. But younger writers still have problems and so one of the things I do is to edit anthologies of stories by Maori authors. I’ve done nine so far. These anthologies are commercially produced and they’ve been very successful. I like to think that their major success has been in encouraging Maori writers to keep persevering within a very difficult climate. It’s important for this to happen, especially in New Zealand, where the Maori identity must assist to determine the shape of a future in which we are a minority. Yes, well, you’d think that in these days when television is reducing us to bytes of information that they’d be easier to sell rather than harder. Perhaps publishers need to change their priorities and begin to market short stories in a stronger, more positive way. I know that the trend seems to be to publish bigger and longer books. But as far as Pacific and Maori writing is concerned, I would like to think that we will find our own way of getting to the books that will sell to the tribe—and that won’t be commercially driven but, rather, culturally driven.
The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008